Conceptual Contexts for Contemporary Instrumentality

Music Making in Cybernetic Terms

Music making is a complex social context in which relationships between its various actors can be fruitfully discussed from a cybernetic perspective. This allows us to introduce notions that are essential for our later discussion of concrete instrument designs, control schemes, and collaborative process.

A minimal list of elements in common Western music includes: musician, instrument, composer, instrument maker, audience, and performance site. Their roles can overlap: Composers may be also instrumentalists, audience members may also be musicians, musicians may also make their own instruments or setups.

Nonetheless, there is a division of roles in Western music practice: when a composer writes music for musicians, he (note typical gender) decides what the musicians should play on their instruments, and the musicians perform these instructions as exactly as possible. The composer’s decisions in turn are limited by the instrument maker’s choices for the instrument’s possibility space. The instrument maker depends on properties of materials, and physical laws for vibration and acoustics. Now the resulting decision hierarchy appears to have this order.

On second thought, there are other dependencies: One can claim that the musician depends as much on the instrument maker as the instrument maker depends on the musician, her/his physical and mental abilities, and her willingness to study and play the instrument. So the order becomes.

Assuming that a majority of musical pieces composed are intended as popular music, one could claim that the audience is the real authority on what composers will compose. That puts the audience from the bottom to the top of the list.

Of course, these contradictions are easy to resolve by considering the mental model behind the relationships: The examples so far assumed hierarchical order, a “chain of command”, modeled on classical causality. Simplified to three elements, here is a linear chain in music.

As soon as the composer listens to the music coming from the instrument, the chain becomes a loop—the early cyberneticians called this feedback and circular causality.[1] When a musician discusses with a composer how well which ideas work on the instrument based on “how the instrument feels” when playing, we have a network of influences. With more than three elements, such networks become dense very quickly. Drawing these influence paths at equal strength is a simplification, as their strength may vary depending on who interprets them.

  • [1] The Macy conferences which crystallised the cybernetics concepts in the 1940s and 50s were heldunder the title “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems”. Theproceedings of the sessions from 1949-53 are reprinted in (Pias 2003).
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